A few miles south of the city of Wakefield, in the heart of West Yorkshire, lie the ruins of Sandal Castle, a once medieval stronghold where Dukes, Earls and Kings of England once fought bloodied battles… and where they were brutally slain. Not far from this ruinous place, in a picturesque village known as Walton, stands a stone hall surrounded by a glistening lake, accessible only by boat or a small footbridge. This was a place where, for a very long time, no gun was ever fired, no sword drawn, and where the only sounds to be heard were the calls of feathered friends, swooping around in merry flocks, making their nests in the sprawling woodland surrounding the lake of Walton Hall. All kinds of life was welcome at this place: species familiar to the land, and those not-so-familiar, lured by the widespread tales of the welcome they would receive by Charles Waterton Esq., the owner of this vast estate.
Mr. Waterton was an early 19th century naturalist who travelled the globe in search of…. well, perhaps not even he was sure. The only thing he was certain of was that life in conventional England was dull and tedious for a young man with an urge to explore. He dreamed of roaming free through the wildest regions of South America, crossing the equator with the courage of a lion and the trained instincts of a savage, combined with the accurate observations of a man of science and the rich delight of a poet.
In his youth Charles Waterton could never have been described as a star pupil. When he was nine years old he was sent away by his strict Catholic parents to a boarding school in the dreary North of England. Though he made very little progress in learning, he excelled in the art of bird nesting, and longed for the day when he could be free to make his own start in life, doing what he wanted to do and not what the authorities thought proper for him to do.
As soon as he was old enough, he was away to whichever foreign clime took his fancy, to study the local fowl and pond-life in fresh-water swamps. He roamed the intricacies of the forests, plunging fearlessly into its cool depths, in search of anything bright and new. Barefoot and often alone, he pulled poisonous snakes out of their lurking places, climbed up to the very top of the tallest trees to peep into holes and crevices in search of bats and vampires, pursued the wildest of beasts over hills and dales, before returning, tired, frayed and sunburnt, his pockets and bags overflowing with hundreds of new specimens, to his little haven in the south of Wakefield. (Though he may have been guilty of dreaming up a few of the creations on show!)
The purpose of his very first expedition was to collect a sample of the mythical Wourali poison, excreted from the creeping vines of the Amazonian valley, the existence of which had hitherto been widely doubted by many. When mixed together and boiled with two kinds of bulbous plants, two species of ants, a quantity of Indian pepper, and the ground fangs of two species of snake, along with a copious amount of divine intervention from evil spirits, it was said to form a thick, deadly syrup that caused instant death. The slightest drop of the liquid into the bloodstream rendered the victim paralysed, and hence the Amazonian natives used to coat their arrowheads with the poison.
Of course, a curious Waterton couldn’t resist trying out this new substance as soon as he returned, and set to work on poisoning a number of birds and animals in his possession. He made a record of his observations, and stated that in each case no pain or discomfort seemed to have been experienced. Instead, a powerful sleepiness gradually overcame the poor creatures, and in just a few minutes they had silently passed away.
One such victim of Waterton’s experiment was a female ass, which took ten minutes to die. But Waterton was not yet finished. After the death, he made an opening in the creature’s windpipe, inserted a pair of bellows, and spent the next two hours pumping air into the lungs, until the ass miraculously began to show the merest flicker of life once more. Waterton continued for two hours more, tirelessly inflating the body with life-giving oxygen, until, at last, the ass somehow rose to its feet and began walking! It took a further 12 months for the ass to recover to a full state of health again, but she was said to have become fat and frisky, and lived happily on Waterton’s estate for another 24 years. She was named Wouralia, after the deadly poison.
Though his experiments will undoubtedly be considered cruel, heartless and unnecessary today, Waterton’s actions caused many people to wonder whether artificial resuscitation, as demonstrated on Wouralia, could be carried out on human beings until the lungs resumed their natural action once more.
And thus history was made by an ass and a lunatic in a sleepy little village in the North of England.
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Extracts taken from ‘Remarkable Men’.